The silent streets of Pompeii.
I think it was John Maxtone Graham who first described the sinking of the Titanic as being akin to the last night of a small town. As with so much of Maxtone Graham’s work, it was a phrase that stayed with me.
And lately, I have come to realise that the assertion was truer than first apparent. For the disaster was, indeed, akin to the last night of a small town.
That town, specifically, being Pompeii.
Consider a string of coincidences that link the two almost as tightly as if they had somehow been threaded together.
Both Titanic and Pompeii catered to a relative few in extreme, pampered luxury. The Roman coastal city was a kind of First Century Las Vegas; a resort built for the pleasure, ease and indulgence of the ruling classes. Almost awash with wine, wallowing in orgies and a surfeit of elaborate entertainments, they depended for their subsistence on both a compliant middle class and a functioning underclass of servants and slaves to maintain their gilded abodes.
As for Titanic, she was the same, at least in First Class. Not for nothing did Joseph Conrad describe her as a ‘Floating Ritz’. The term, intended to be derisory, came to sum up all that doomed, gilded magnificence quite beautifully. Stokers worked back breaking, four hour shifts, ingesting vast amounts of coal dust even as the Astors, the Wideners and the Duff Gordons feasted on caviar and quaffed perfectly chilled champagne just a few floors above.
Mount Vesuvius at dawn
Both Titanic and Pompeii went about their respective businesses in blithe disregard of adjacent, potentially lethal natural hazards. In the case of the inhabitants of Pompeii, they played, whored and partied in the very shadow of the looming, smouldering menace of Mount Vesuvius. Aboard the westbound Titanic, one ice warning after another was shrugged off with almost breathtaking indifference, as First Class struggled gainfully through a daily marathon of swimming, taking the air and wading through a nightly ten course dinner.
Town and ocean liner alike exuded an air of huge, gilded permanence that seemed to overpower the more sensible faculties of even the most savvy of souls. An air of faux invincibility permeated both the streets of Pompeii, and the hushed, First Class corridors of the Titanic like some kind of awful sleeping sickness. And when disaster came to both, there were some surprisingly similar reactions.
Nature took out these twin monuments to human vanity with almost effortless ease. Fire in the case of Pompeii; ice in that of Titanic. The black, slowly reddening slopes of Vesuvius found an awful counterpoint centuries later, in the shape of the black, water sodden iceberg; the unyielding salt water assassin that slashed, punched and gouged open around a third of the hull of the Titanic.
Reaction to imminent doom in the case of both ran the gamut; from disbelief to total denial. From the streets of Pompeii, the clouds of slowly rising, noxious ash issuing from Vesuvius seemed miles and miles away, as indeed they were at first. Aboard Titanic, few people at first could be coaxed into the lifeboats to drop into the ocean, so far below. Yet both ash cloud and icy ocean encroached on their respective prey with an awful, unstoppable certainty. Within the confines of both, fear and anxiety rose like a tidal wave.
Titanic; Pompeii on sea?
For the terrified people flooding the streets of Pompeii, the sea offered the only direct avenue of escape, just as it did to the increasingly worried throng that milled nervously around the sloping decks of the Titanic. And, ultimately, the sea would deny salvation to the great majority on both occasions.
In the case of Pompeii, a tsunami triggered at the same time as the eruption of Vesuvius negated any hopes of a safe evacuation for even a few. As it happened, there were pitifully few boats available, in any event.
Aboard the Titanic, a similarly pathetic lack of lifeboats meant that most of her terrified throng would ultimately be upended into a freezing sea. While there were lifebelts for all, the cold killed most within minutes. Some expired without even getting their heads wet.
The destruction of both Pompeii and Titanic echoed down through time as salutary lessons against placing too much faith in perceived human ingenuity. And, eventually, the rediscovery of each would produce a tidal wave of awed, retrospective musings. This piece is probably just the latest example.
Today, the stunted Doric columns of Pompeii glint eerily in the mid day, Neapolitan sun in what looks- and feels- like a vast, sixty six hectare boom town that died screaming. Two and a half miles down in the dark fastness of the Atlantic, the shattered corpse of Titanic sprawls across the ocean floor like the remnants of a wrecked skyscraper.
The booms of her cranes are folded across the forecastle like the crossed arms of a deceased pharaoh, frozen in space and time, just like the ruts made by hundreds of chariot wheels that once clattered through the streets of Pompeii. The giant, eight ton port and starboard anchors hulk in their recesses like moss covered tombstones in a vast underwater cemetery. A torn, jumbled, totally humbled cathedral of the dead.
Lowering lifeboats and rising panic
Pompeii. Titanic. Separated by centuries, and joined by violent, natural death. Deaths so implausible and overwhelming that it hid each from view for years, while at the same time gestating their imperishable legends. For the denizens of both, everything possible was done for their comfort, ease, and luxury, and almost nothing whatsoever for their safety. That is their true, mutually appalling legacy.
Today, we know what both looked like at the height of their glory. Their obvious, total ruin is there for all of us to see as well once more. If progress is, indeed, measured in years, what are we to make of these twin follies of once gilded grandeur today?